Elated, terrified, relief… All words I’ve previously used after being offered a new gig. All in all, getting a new job is a fairly emotional time for me, as I’m sure it is for many others.
However, getting the offer and the contract shouldn’t be the end of the game, and actually does require some level-headed thinking. You’ll never have more power to negotiate your work conditions than before signing a new contract, after all, they’ve just decided that you’re the person they really want, so there will be some scope for compromise.
Set aside some time to read the whole document (yes, really) and don’t be afraid to ask about bits you don’t understand, because to be quite honest, legal gobbledegook can get in the sea. It’s also worth remembering that a lot of contracts are bog standard, so asking to change something might not be as big a deal as you think – especially at smaller companies where they may have used a template.
Realistically, you’re never going to be able to push back on everything, and doing so probably runs the risk of making it look like you don’t want the job, but it pays to know what to look out for. Small changes in contracts and working conditions can make a big difference to how happy (and productive) you are, as well as how long you’ll stay in the role, so don’t be afraid to ask, explaining the positive benefits for both you and the company.
A Massive List Of Things To Look For In Your Contract
• Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Rights: You might not be planning on bringing a small human into your life any time soon (or in my case ever) but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at this now. Plans can change unexpectedly, or you could end up staying in a job a lot longer than you thought – even if you have no interest in becoming a parent, a company’s policy in this area give a good indication of how they treat their employees. There are set baselines in law for things like maternity leave and pay, and there are some guidelines around paternity leave/pay and adoption rights, though they’re much less generous by law. If you think something doesn’t seem fair, bring it up now, but framed in a way which stresses how this will ensure you’re sticking with the company for the long run.
• Probation Periods: A probation period comes as standard with any new job, and while this isn’t a surprise, you should still take a look at it. Depending on the job and the length of the contract, probation length will vary. It can be anything between three months and a year, but six months is the general norm. You’ll also probably find you have decreased rights while on probation – specifically around how much notice they have to give you if terminating your contract (though this also works both ways if you want to leave).
Crucially, employers shouldn’t make probation unreasonably long – so you have concerns about the length of your probation, flag it as a discussion point. Also, remember that probation periods are as much about what is and isn’t working for you in a job as it is for your boss, so use opportunities for regular feedback to raise any problems you have too, and it’s always worth being clear from the offset what the expectations and targets are to pass.
• Flexible and Home Working: Obviously this comes with a few caveats in that there are some jobs you perhaps can’t do at home, and it might be unwise in some circumstances to try and push for regular homeworking if you haven’t proved just how darn wonderful you are at the job already, but it’s worth making sure there are no rules which literally tie you to the office, even in exceptional circumstances. Let’s face it, there are going to be times when the trains or tubes are kaput, you have a dentist appointment, or your child is off sick and working from home is the sensible option.
There are also some jobs where working from home is feasible and, depending on your circumstances, this can be a really important factor for some people. For me, the freedom to be able to crack on in my own space occasionally is really important, but the key explaining how this will work well for the company and how you’ll be accountable with your time. If going into the office every day is going to be a struggle, be honest, but make sure you come with solutions, not problems. The same goes for asking for adjustments to the times of day you’re expected in, so make sure you’ve thought through what you’re asking.
• EU Working Time Directive: Boring name, sensible policy which says you can’t work on average more than 48 hours a week (which works out at 9.6 hours over five days or 12 four hour days). Obviously news is an unpredictable business, and we all know they’ll be times when we stay late to get the story out or speak to a source, but personally I just think it’s a just bit of a dick move to try and get employees to try and sign an opt-out that essentially says we want you to work stupidly long hours above what you’re contracted to do on a regular basis. Especially when it’s worked out on an average of all the weeks you work. Employers aren’t legally allowed to discriminate against you for not opting out, so I always make a point of getting any opt-out taken out of a contract.
• Extracurricular Projects and Freelancing: If you’re anything like me, it’s difficult to not have a bit of a side project – it’s actually how Journo Resources started out. I also know a video producer who has an excellent sideline running children’s parties. Some contracts, however, set out that you’re basically not allowed to do anything else but your job – even applying to voluntary stuff in some cases. I once had a really weird line that said employees should ‘devote the whole of their time to the business’, which I queried straight away, because, you know, sometimes I like to sleep and watch TV when I’m not at work.
If you’re the kind of person who likes doing extra bits in your evenings address this upfront. It’s not unreasonable for an employer to ask you to spend all your working hours on your main job and put that in the contract, or set down that this should be your main employment, other projects shouldn’t affect your ability to do your job, and that you shouldn’t work for any direct competitions. Crucially though, these rules leave space for you to do other things. The easiest way to set their minds at ease is to say why you want the freedom – telling them you occasionally do stand-up gigs or write career advice blogs is so inoffensive it becomes hard to say no.
• Competition Clauses: It goes without saying you probably won’t be working for competitors while you’re there (unless, of course, you’re a freelancer), but it can also come into play after you’ve left. Some contracts stipulate that you can’t work for a competitor for a set amount of time after leaving your role, so it’s worth looking carefully at who they see their competitors to be, how long this time period is, and what you plan to do next. Personally, we take the view this is a totally unreasonable pain in the arse, as it has serious ramifications for what you can do next. Thankfully it hasn’t really seeped too far into UK journalism at the moment, but worth looking out for.
• Pay, Pay Rises and Bonuses: Obviously you know that you need to look at pay, but it’s more than just how much you’re going to get each month (though, if you’re looking to negotiate up, now is the time to do it). First and foremost check out when you’ll get paid each month, and change your direct debits accordingly. Take a look at if there are any structures in place for pay rises or bonuses – this might be unlikely in most entry-level journalism jobs, but you may find some employers offer a small percentage bonus each year to keep up with inflation, or a performance related bonus. If they do, make sure to know what you’re expected to do to obtain it.
As a fun aside, make sure to calculate your take-home pay before you sign on the dotted line – pension payments, student loans, national insurance and tax will all come off before it hits your bank account. It’s also good to check out the expenses policy too – an employer should cover any costs you incur as part of doing your job (aside from things like commuting of course).
• Overtime and Time in Lieu: It’s journalism, there are always going to be some extra hours if news breaks or you’re working on an exclusive, but that doesn’t make it unreasonable to suss out what the deal is with overtime. If you’re on a rota to work occasional weekends or evenings, for example, in addition to your normal hours, then there should be a process where you can be compensated, either by extra pay or giving you the time back. Also, it’s worth remembering that ‘being on call’ also amounts to work in the eyes of the law. Most contracts will come with a clause saying you will sometimes be expected to work additional hours without extra remuneration, so it’s set some expectations of what’s reasonable, and what you can expect in return.
• Additional Benefits: You see it on the job adverts all the time, ‘plus company benefits’. Who even knows what it really means? Make sure to nail it down – most all journalism jobs should offer you a free eye test voucher as you’ll be using a screen a lot. Other regular offers you might want to check up on include things like use of a pool car, pension contributions (yes, we know, we’ll work till we die) or healthcare – something you might also want to check kicks in straight away.
• Reporting Lines & Feedback: Boy, this piece just gets more and more fun doesn’t it! Seriously though, you need to know who you report to, and if you’re managing anyone else. Even if you’re doing the most amazing job in the world, things will get complicated if you don’t know who you’re reporting too – you need to be telling the right person how amazing you are. Equally, if you’re managing other people, then supporting them is a huge part of your job. Similarly, you don’t want to accidentally stand on anybody else’s toes. While you’re at it make sure to look at the structure for feedback – as a general rule of thumb there should be an annual appraisal or review system, and you should get regular time with your manager one on one (roughly every month or so) so you can bring up any problems as they arise.
• Grounds For Dismissal: Obviously, in no circumstances ever do you want this to happen, so check the rules. And then check again. Everyone knows the obvious things you shouldn’t do (getting drunk at work is a bad idea), but every company has their own rules around working for other places, press trips and PRs, social media, or use of office equipment. Essentially, what we’re saying here is don’t get caught out by something silly you thought was OK.
• Holiday: The second most important thing next to pay, check out what you’re entitled to. As a general guide, you should be getting at least 25 days holiday plus bank holidays (those this will be pro rata if you work part-time), though the legal minimum is 20 days plus bank holidays. Some also offer an extra day for every year of service. Check for any restrictions on when you can take your holiday – some companies might bar you from taking it at certain busy times of year, or say you can only take so much in one go. On the other hand, smaller outfits sometimes mandate you have to take time off at certain points when they’re shutting the office. Additionally, make sure you know the process for requesting leave, how often in advance you have to book it, and if you’re able to trade in unused days for cash or carry them over to the next year.
• Breaks: While we’re on the subject of time for you (which is really important for both you and the company, it helps no one if you burn out). As part of the actual law you are entitled to at least a 20-minute break as part of every shift you do which is longer than six hours, but realistically, you should have at least an hour off in the middle of your working day. Yes, we know, news happens, but as a general rule try and take your breaks, you’re entitled to them, they help you be more productive on your return, and it helps foster a good work culture.
Also, you’re generally not paid for breaks (this will be mentioned in your contract), so take them! It’s worth checking if there are any restrictions on when breaks can be taking, and it is also worth knowing you are legally entitled to at least 11 hours away from the office between shifts, as well as at least 24 hours of uninterrupted non-work time every week, or 48 hours uninterrupted every fortnight.
• Workplace Surveillance: There’s might not much you can do about it, but it’s worth being aware of what data your bosses are gathering and can look at. Most contracts will say they’ll monitor data on devices which they own, and they then have the right to look at communications you make or send using your work emails or other channels like Slack, Skype or Lync. Similarly, you might need to be careful if you’re using the work Wi-Fi – so either use your own data or encrypted services like WhatsApp if you’re doing anything non-work related, or you just wouldn’t want someone else to see. This video explainer from UEA’s Dr Paul Bernal is a great overview of what they can be looking at – and what to do next.
• Job Description & Title: A lot of contracts will give a brief overview of your job description and title, so you know what you’re signing up for, so make sure this tallies up with the job which was advertised – you’re signing the contract, so if there’s anything in there you’re unhappy with or weren’t told about, now is the time to change it, as you will be held to it. You have the most power before you’ve signed the contract, so raise these things now. Making sure you’re happy with what you sign also means you can raise problems if the job isn’t what you thought it as, because it should be clearly laid out for you at the start. Similarly, make sure the job title is the one you’ve agreed, we all need to know what to put in our Twitter bio after all.
• Copyright & Intellectual Property Clauses: So, you wrote the piece, but who owns it? It stands to reason that most of the stuff you produce in your role will be owned by the company you work for, but do you still retain some rights to be able to use it in a showreel or a portfolio? Yep, yet another thing you need to check. Some companies also try to claim the intellectual property rights for anything you create while you’re employed – so even projects you do in your spare time or your Twitter feed and we’ve even heard stories of paper’s asking reporters to leave their contacts book behind and pass over all their details when they leave. Obviously, we think this is absolutely ridiculous, so make sure to check how far reaching the current contract is.
• Confidentiality Clauses: On a similar vein, you’re probably expected to keep private company details to yourself, both while you’re at the job and afterwards – so things like strategy, investigations being worked on, internal stats. Your contract should cover the broad scope of this so you can assess if it’s too vague or far-reaching, and should also say for how long you’re not supposed to reveal the goss.
• Notice Period & Obligations After You’re Left: If you do decide it’s time to ride off into the sunset (which, let’s be honest will probably happen), you’ll want to know how much notice you need to give them. One month is pretty standard, however, the higher your role, the longer you might be expected to stay while they work out how to replace. Some newsrooms are increasingly asking for three-month contracts for all staff, which in our opinion is a *bit much*, though obviously, you have to think really carefully about how you phrase this one, you don’t want to make it look as if you’re planning on leaving any time soon. It’s also worth looking at any other obligations you may have to comply with after you’ve left, for example, the kind of stuff we said about competition and confidentiality clauses earlier.
To be totally honest, if you’ve stayed with us to this point, we salute you, and think you probably deserve a pint. That said, while this stuff is really dry and isn’t exactly what you want to be doing once you’ve got a new job, ironing out any issues before you sign will be well worth it. Now, to the pub.
This article was produced with the help of several Journo Resources supporters, who we’d like to thank for their input and advice. In particular, Mayer Nissim, Gemma McNeil-Walsh, Sara Malm, Sophie Warnes, Sara Longthorne, Marta Santiváñez, Caroline Mortimer, Faye C White, Laurence Wakefield and Karen Yossman.